Local therapy dog serves God and community

Tiffany L. Dale

Staff Writer

Leonard&Dog_5-21-2015With every wag of her tail, Molly’s mission is clear: help make people happy.

It’s a mission she has achieved with distinction.

The Labrador mix recently earned the title “Advanced Therapy Dog,” a designation awarded by the American Kennel Club to canines who have completed more than 445 visits as a certified therapy dog. Molly works through the Tampa-based Canines for Christ non-profit organization.

It is a journey Leonard didn’t expect to take. When he and his wife, Marilyn, lost their beloved 12-year-old Husky-mix, Gabby, they were heartbroken. A week later, though, they found Molly, who had been dumped onto a Mt. Juliet roadway on an 18-degree night. When the frigid temperatures didn’t kill the young pup and her brothers and mother, she was rescued and put up for adoption. Molly was 6-weeks-old when her mother and brothers went to live in New York; she was adopted by the Leonard’s.

Molly’s destiny was divine and Leonard’s military background guaranteed it would also be patriotic.  Leonard, who served 10 years in the Army before spending another decade in the Navy, enrolled Molly in basic training through Petco. After graduating from the six-week obedience course, she went on to be trained as a therapy dog by Canines for Christ where she received training focused on non-aggression and complete obedience. The process takes about three months to complete.

“We don’t make dogs jump through hoops,” said Leonard, who is a certified evaluator for the program. “They are there to comfort people, so the main thing is that they’re calm.”

While the organization’s goal is to minister to people in all walks of life, Molly’s primary mission has involved work with seniors in the Donelson-Hermitage area, new enlistees at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) and service members at the USO. Recently, she has begun working with veterans at the Veterans Administration (VA) in Murfreesboro.  Watching Molly work with wounded warriors and soldiers suffering from PTSD is a source of pride for Leonard, but he’s quick to point out that she isn’t a “service dog.” Rather, he explained, she is a therapy dog.

“She’s there to calm and comfort people,” he said.

Unlike service dogs, who are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Molly can’t go into certain establishments, such as restaurants or other places where food is prepared or served. Also unlike service dogs, Molly can be petted (and it’s encouraged!)

Molly isn’t one to take days off, though Leonard said she recently reported to “sick call” with a case of kennel cough. She bounced back quickly, though, and is back to work. Leonard said he expects Molly to complete more than 600-visits in the next six to eight months.

Canines for Christ began in the last year; it has grown from about 200 handlers to more than 500 “human volunteers,” plus their dogs. The group operates in 30 states and two countries. Locally, there are a handful of canine-handler teams. Dogs must be fully vaccinated and certified as non-aggressive by their veterinarians; the organization carries $1 million liability insurance on volunteer canines.

For more information about therapy dogs, email Leonard at inchristalone2004@yahoo.com

Contact Tiffany at 615-298-1500 or tiffany@gcanews.com